How to understand home lighting systems

Published on Alaska Dispatch News (

Barbara Ramsey, Clair Ramsey

February 14, 2016

How often have you been asked by someone outside Alaska, “How do you handle the short hours of daylight in the winter?”


If anyone should be knowledgeable about the effects of light, Alaskans should be.


However, have we just learned to live with darker days? Could we do better? In our previous column we talked about the technical aspect of lighting our homes. Now let’s talk about the practical use.


To better understand lighting, think of the light in your home as having four layers. We will discuss these different layers, with examples of how to use multiple layers to enhance a home’s livability.


1. The first layer of light is ambient light, which is essential to almost every room. Ambient light is indirect, so the effect softens surroundings. Windows provide ambient light. Another source is through indirect-light fixtures that don’t draw attention and spread light up and out in an unobtrusive, even wash.


Opaque wall sconces (two to four) usually provide one of the best sources of ambient light by bouncing light off the walls first, then up to the ceilings. Cove lighting is installed closer to the ceiling and hidden behind cornices or ledges so the light washes the ceiling more than the adjacent walls. Floor lamps also send light up and out with less focus. However, using only

ambient light can leave a room feeling flat, without depth and dimension, because it isn’t enough light to work in.


2. The second layer is task lighting for spots in the room where you need to read, study or work. Properly placed task lighting will shine on the work surface but be below your head height to prevent casting a shadow on your work. For reading or studying, consider a table lamp with a solid shade. The solid shade will focus the light downward to your reading material and not create a side view distraction or glare.


3. The third layer is accent lighting. This lighting is focused in a tighter beam to spotlight a specific object (piece of art) or area (tabletop). However, be careful; when used alone, accent lighting creates a museum effect by casting deep shadows on anything outside the light beam. Accent lighting can also be used outdoors to highlight trees.


4. The final layer is decorative lighting. This creates the “bling” in a room. Decorative lighting is intended to stand out but may not be the best light to work under. Now let’s see a couple of examples of how a combination of lighting layers can enhance the following rooms.



• Since cabinets in older homes usually don’t go all the way to the ceiling, an often-overlooked place for ambient light is above cabinets.

• One of the most needed locations for task lights is under the cabinets for food preparation.

• Pendant lights over the breakfast bar can accent the countertop and can also create decorative focal points when made of fun colors.

• Depending on whether what is over your kitchen sink — usually a cabinet or ceiling — can hold a light fixture, this is a good spot for either task or accent lighting.

• To maximize light in the kitchen, replace the single overhead ceiling light with numerous recessed lights on a dimmer. This allows full-strength light for cleaning or a lower setting for ambient light.


Living rooms

• For homes with vaulted ceiling, sconces can splash light up the walls and across the ceiling with ambient light.

• In a smaller room with a low ceiling, floor lamps also spread ambient light effectively upward.

• Consider end table lamps for reading and to bring light lower to face level.

• For wall art, adjustable recessed accent lighting or well-placed tract lighting will create the desired focal point.

• Dimmers in ceiling lights will also help to adjust light to the needed level.


Proper lighting isn’t turning on every light to full power in a room, but layering multiple types of

lights. Properly used light layering can put you at ease, relieve stress and create a welcoming

space that enhances the other elements in the room.


Barbara and Clair Ramsey are local associate brokers specializing in residential real estate. Their column appears every month in the Alaska Dispatch News. Their email address is


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